Saturday, March 17, 2012

“Paradise Lost”- Genesis 3:1-9 - March 18, 2012

It is one of those symbols that come to mind even with those nominally touched by the Church.  It is the apple.  It has come to symbolize the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, changing humanities walk with God forever.  This story is the fodder for grand literature and grand exaggeration.  I always wondered why the apple was chosen as the fruit for the story.  The passage itself does not describe the fruit. In fact, the traditional rabbinic teaching was that it was clearly not an apple.[i]  So if traditional Hebrew thought would have never tied the apple to this story, why do we? With a little research I discovered it was based on an old Latin pun tied to the publication of the Bible in Latin called the Vulgate.  The pun sings; by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted mālum (evil).So with an apple in hand we look to our narrative for the morning that finds to Adam and Eve in the Garden and the problem at the tree of knowledge looming just ahead of them. 

Throughout the first two chapters of Genesis we listen as God gives them the gift of every plant, every tree, every fish that swam in the sea, and every animal that walked on the face of the earth.  God gave them everything, save on thing.  We hear in Genesis 2:8 and 9, 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then in verse 16 and 17 we hear God’s only prohibition, a directive given for their benefit; And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” So, with everything you can imagine laid in front of them, with the Garden teeming with trees filled with fruit and animals ever present to meet their need for food, we find them, both Adam and Eve, standing there in front of the only tree that God had directed them to avoid. 

This picture does not surprise me, does it you?  How many of you can remember a story from your life when the thing you were most drawn toward is the one thing you were supposed to leave alone.  How many of you can remember the one place you wanted most to go was the one place your parents had forbidden you to go? But the tree is not a divine joke planted by God to tempt Adam and Eve.  It was much more important than that.  

But as we begin to move into focal narrative we immediately have a problem. When we read the Adam and Eve narrative, whether we realize it or not, we have been taught to actually think a very different version of this story.  In 1667 the great 17th Century English poet, John Milton first published a ten book poem entitled, “Paradise Lost” in an effort to explain the ways of God to man. Milton tells the story of the dawn of creation, the struggle between good and evil angels, and the story of Adam and Eve.  This poem is considered one of the greatest works in English literature and it has shaped the way our culture thinks about our focal narrative this morning.  Hear a simplified version of Milton’s own summary of this part of his grand poem.  It says; Satan returns to earth, where he chooses the serpent as his best disguise. Next morning, when Adam and Eve go forth to their gardening tasks, Eve suggests they go in separate directions. With great reservation, Adam finally consents. The serpent finds Eve alone and approaches her. She is surprised to find the creature can speak, and is soon induced by him to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam is horrified when he finds what she has done, but at length resigns himself to share her fate rather than be left without her, and eats the fruit also. After eating, they are aroused with lust and lay together, then fall to restless sleep. They waken to awareness of their nakedness and shame, and cover themselves with leaves. In their emotional distress, they fall into mutual accusations and blame.[ii]

You may have never thought about it, but the reality was that John Milton’s grand poem would have been more readily available to the people of England then the Bible would have been.  The King James Version of the Bible was not completed until 1611, but for an extended period of time it would have been way too expensive for most common people to possess. Milton’s version of the story found its way into pulpits, to schools, and across the breadth of the literate English population.  The timing of its production meant that it would have been in the hands of the leading voices that gave birth to our nation.  The problem is that Milton’s version is radically different than how the Bible tells the story.  We have to unravel the two to clearly hear what I believe God intends for us to hear in this narrative.  Milton offers his poem as a way to explain God’s way to men.  I believe that his very presupposition is flawed.  While I love his visceral image of “Paradise Lost”, I believe the purpose of this narrative is to help explain the broken relationship between God and humanity.  This is a story that introduces us to sin.  This is a story that introduces us to brokenness.   It is a story that matters because all of history and the story of our relationship with God hang in the balance.

Natalee Gates read the narrative passage as a whole earlier in our service.  We listened as she read the Biblical account of the exchange between Eve and the serpent. I want us to take a closer look at parts of the conversation that give us a clearer understanding of what is being said and what part of our cultural story we need to set aside. As we listened to Natalee read we heard Satan twists the word of God and the words of Eve. Remember that God had instructed Adam; “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Notice that this instruction predates the introduction of Eve on the world stage. In our passage Eve takes center stage. The serpent will address her specifically in his effort to turn the way of God.  But it is important to pause here for just a moment. I imagine that many of the women in the congregation are now sitting there thinking, “Great, now is the time when he tells us that women are responsible for the humanity and the corruption of all of mankind.”  Hang on with me.  I know that you have heard that before, but they were wrong.

 In Paradise Lost Milton tells the story that Eve faces Satan alone.  She has convinced Adam that they should work a part for the day.  So, innocent Adam goes wandering off to his task only later to be drawn into the evil plot at play.  Good pulpit pounders will quote 1 Timothy 2:13-14 which reads; “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (NRSV) But it seems Milton and those that lay the sole responsibility at the feet of women forget Romans 5:12-14  and I Corinthians 15: 21-22  that lay responsibility at Adam’s feet. But most importantly they forget that the Genesis text itself tells us in verse 6 reports; She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  It is interesting to read how ancient rabbis and theologians across the ages have struggled to deal with this passage.  Some of speculated that maybe Adam arrived late in the story and was their just as Eve made her choice. Their problem is that there is no way to try to make the Scripture read this way. [iii] So let’s be clear, the story of “The Fall” is not a female story – or a male story – it is our story – all of our story.  It is the story that shows the moment Adam and Eve had the choice to follow God’s word or claim the way of deception that will break their walk with God.  Their choice is our choice.

So now we come to the moment the serpent speaks the twists and the turns of God’s word and God’s way begins; “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” 4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  If you listen closely you hear that Satan turns God’s simple command not to eat of the tree of good and evil into something much, much more.  Eve is confused and Adam is no help.  Adam and Eve had a simple choice.  God had given them everything and commanded them not to eat of one tree.  It was not a point of temptation.  It is the tree of good and evil because it is the symbol of our choice between following God’s word and way or our own way.  You know what happens next, they take a bit of the forbidden fruit of the tree. (take a bite of an apple)

Their choice is made and now the consequences begin to be played out. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” This part of the story breaks my heart. Adam and Eve we created for a relationship with God.  They got to walk and talk with God face to face in the cool of the day every day. 

I imagine Adam and Eve hid there in the garden, covered as best they could, fearing death.  In God’s response we see the first taste of God’s grace; death is withheld and the possibility of a relationship is retained.  Things will be different.  There was a price, a punishment, for these two and those who would follow them. A casual read of the Genesis account will tell of a life of labor and pain that will follow.  But the price is actually much higher.  While some will grieve the loss of paradise of the garden and the life of labor that followed; the price of sin was that their walk with God was broken.  Sin got in the way and gets in the way in our lives. The story of Adam and Eve and the garden tells us in our choosing our way over God’s way humanity broke our relationship with God.  Easter will tell us that ultimately God will have to do the unimaginable to pave the way for redemption.

[ii]  “ PARADISE LOST ~ THE SUMMARY PARAPHRASED: A simplified version of Milton's "Arguments" for each book of Paradise Lost,” Available online at,  on March 15, 2012, , New Arts Library,. 1999, All rights reserved.
[iii] The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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